Beginners and Experts

In the world of tea, what do we gain with experience?

What’s the difference between an experienced tea drinker and a relative novice? I’m not an expert, but I’m closer to being an expert than I used to be. I’ve also interacted with many people I would consider to be experts, especially in certain areas. Here are a few things people seem to collect along the way.

Tea and teaware

I’ve not met any tea enthusiast who does not have a sizable collection. From people with over 100 teapots to those with entire rooms full of tea, there exist tea-fans so obsessed that they have gone beyond practicality. The more you learn about tea, and the more tea you learn about, the more temptation there is to buy it. Marketing is getting better and better, limited releases are everywhere (white2tea, pu-erh.sk, others), and the selection of teaware is unbelievable. It is very difficult to purposefully reduce the size of your tea/teaware stash over time, and the best way is a sale or swap.

The ability to relax and enjoy

In order to fully enjoy tea, one must drop everything else (aside from possibly a good book or album). I mean to say that worry and tea don’t go well together, especially not worry about tea. I see most (not all) beginners quite concerned about if they are making the tea “right.” Eventually, an expert learns to let the tea make itself. This is done partially through development of personal style and habit, and otherwise learning how to relax and make tea at the same time.

The ability to make good tea

Of the ten thousand ways to make tea, not all are good. Making good tea is about maximizing good qualities and minimizing bad ones. It is an iterative process that comes from many attempts. The more pots one has, the longer it takes to learn their nuances, and the worse the available water is, well, you gotta figure out a solution. The better the water is, the easier it is to make good tea. The point is, people usually get better with experience, or at least develop some character and style in their resulting tea.

Positive memories

Some tea sessions stick out over others for various reasons. With experience, the list of memorable tea sessions lengthens. That time I had HK Henry after a long, stressful day. The outdoor session at the pond in the woods. That six-tea marathon session. The tea masterclass where the puers just got older and older. That time the tea made me tear up (it happens to more people than you think!) That first bitter-turning-to sweet taste of raw puer. And the list goes on.

Friendship

I’ve met some people online and offline in the tea community. Some of these friendships go beyond tea, but it’s perfectly possible and okay to have deep friendships entirely about tea. There are one-sided relationships too – some people serve as the experts and others as the novices. The best way to put your own tea journey in context is to show others what you are doing and compare with what they do. This is not to say that people with more experience are necessarily correct, but that they may have reasons for what they do that you can think about as you decide what to incorporate in different ways.

Personal opinions / the (dis)respect of others

The tea culture is a generally polite place full of different opinions. Most tea-learning is confirmed by experience, and people don’t easily let go of that which they’ve learned from experience. There are usually reasons for differing opinions but they are not easy to figure out. So, there are commonly long arguments about, for example, tea storage, unglazed vs. glazed clay, vendor choices, whether a tea is good or bad, and water (this one seems especially contentious). This is what makes tea so exciting to an expert, especially one who is willing to change their mind.

Appreciation of non-tea

The more one learns to enjoy tea, the more that enjoyment spills over into non-tea elements. Whether it’s the world of alcoholic beverages, from single malts to wine to beer to eaux-de-vie, or just appreciation of nature, tea is about exploring the richness of the world to the fullest extent. Eventually, one learns to enjoy simply living and breathing.

Patience and its rewards

Patience is a virtue, and tea requires patience. Waiting for the water to boil takes patience. Waiting for the hot tea to cool a bit takes patience. Waiting for those loooong steeps at the end of a session takes patience. And all that patience is rewarded with a slow, steady adventure. It’s quite uncomfortable to wait so long doing nothing when you are a tea novice, but eventually it becomes clear that doing nothing is the gateway to a clear experience of reality, or something like that.

Learning from mistakes / Beginner’s mind

It’s easy to mess up a session, or brew a tea for a significant other that evokes the reaction of disgust, or spill tea all over your pants. It’s also incredibly common to have your most expensive tea with your favorite teaware and be completely let down by the result. This is learning, and why the best approach to tea is not as an expert, but as a beginner, open to whatever may happen in the current circumstance. The tea experts I respect the most don’t have any pretentious attitude, but simply know how to enjoy and share tea in their own way, and especially are good at listening to experts and beginners alike.

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at puerh brooklyn

P.S. I’m doing a lot of hard, time-consuming, mildly expensive work with water, and plan to share it with the world around March 2020. Sorry for the wait, but distilling water takes many hours, and my glass lab equipment is in customs. Thanks for reading!

One week without tea

If you’re getting tired in the evenings, consider how much tea you drink. I just did one week with no caffeine, when usually I would have around 9 grams of tea per day. Now, with only two grams of gyokuro I can reach my caffeine limit, where I have a sufficient buzz and my heart tells me “no more, that’s enough.” I noticed that now when I have my sessions, since I am more sensitive I am enjoying the sessions so much more. When tea is not necessary in an addictive sense, it is much more of a joy.

Today I had YS 8891 red label in a YS Hei Jin Gang clay yixing. I used to think the pot was terrible (too porous, no flavor) but actually it makes the tea so soft, the notes that are left over are very enjoyable and on average the tea is thicker than in porcelain. Speaking of porcelain, look forward to a post on comparing different porcelain cups.

Since I am so sensitive, I just ordered a 45ml (tiny) yixing so I can enjoy a strong, yet tiny session with only 2.5g of sheng. I have a 50 ml shibo from stefan andersson but it burns a bit when holding it and I’m beginning to see the deep benefits of yixing.

I have yixing pots and european clay pots and it will be interesting to note the similarities and differences. Overall, to refresh your tea experience, go a week without it. It’s the best thing you can do.

Adventures in Water

Around a year ago, I read in the book “The Ancient Art of Tea” that water can be seen as the limiting factor of tea. To paraphrase, if the tea leaves are 10/10 quality, and the water is 8/10, then the resulting tea will be 8/10. It’s well known that water affects the quality of the tea. In fact, MarshalN said that water is more important than tea leaves in terms of potential to improve the quality of tea for your money, although I can’t find that specific post right now for some reason. Here’s some more evidence from the blogosphere that water matters:

http://www.marshaln.com/2016/09/the-taste-of-water/

https://kuura.co/blogs/dispatch/water

https://teadb.org/online-tea-reviews/ (Scroll down a bit to the part about distilled water)

I started drinking tea with friends right when I started thinking about water as it relates to tea. It quickly became apparent that because of my water, my tea sessions at home did not meet expectations. Flavor was muted, body was thin, and instead of enjoying the tea with friends, we felt really unsatisfied and ended up experimenting with water instead. It took many attempts before I figured out a water “solution” that works for me.

First, I tried the babelcarp water app. It tells me how much epsom salt and gypsum to add to my filtered tap water to approximate a mineral water. I added enough to approximate volvic because I had decent results with that brand in the past. It sort of worked, but not really. I could try that again, but the problem is that epsom salt and gypsum are both sulfates. They don’t contain any carbonates, which would help make calcium carbonate, which thickens the body of the tea. So, I found that to be a good step, but not completely what I was looking for. I also tried using sticks of bamboo charcoal in my kettle, but that made the tea lose its vitality entirely. I think it was overpurifying the water and removing dissolved gases.

Then, I tried making water based on this brewing water calculator meant for mineralizing water for beer. The resulting concoction was much too thick for tea, and left a sort of slimy feeling on the teeth, but it was making my tea ultra thick, which was a step in the right direction. Without thickness, tea (puerh in particular) isn’t very fun, and you’re not extracting the full flavor.

I started trying every conceivable brand of bottled water that I could get my hands on. Iceland spring, Volvic, Crystal Geyser, the local supermarket brand, and then finally Nestle Purelife. Some waters were thick, some left a layer of scale on the surface of the tea, some were harsh, and some were quite refreshing. Volvic was thick but muted in taste, while Iceland Spring was refreshing but harsh. Shunan Teng, who runs Tea Drunk in New York City, told me that Nestle Purelife is the only bottled water she likes for tea. So I was using that for a while, with decent results. I realized that I could actually reverse-engineer Nestle Purelife to make my own. I bought calcium chloride, epsom salt, and baking soda, and added it to my filtered tap water with my estimations of how much is in Purelife based on reports on their website. And then, suddenly, my tea came alive.

My tea became thick and full, miles better than the pure filtered tap water without minerals added. It was even coming out a bit better than Purelife. I tried white2tea’s carbolic soap oolong with it, and it was phenomenal. Tried again without the minerals, it tasted weak and underwhelming. These minerals were helping me get what I needed out of $1/gram tea. The water was no longer limiting the tea, in other words.

I have been tweaking my recipe ever since. I have found that potassium bicarbonate and potassium chloride tend to make the tea ultra ultra harsh even in very small quantities. I stick with epsom salt, calcium chloride, and baking soda, because they react to produce calcium carbonate (chalk) to enhance body, and the dissolved magnesium enhances the flavor.

One thing that helped my tea immensely was switching water filter pitcher brands. I had been using Brita and Nakii pitchers, but once I ran out of those filters, I decided to try the Waterdrop. I am in love with this pitcher. Sometimes, I make tea just with the filtered water from this pitcher, and it’s really decent. I decide to use the mineralized water when I just want that extra juice from my tea. This is with Brooklyn tap water, so your milage may vary.

My current recipe is, for every gallon of filtered tap water (you could also try distilled water, but I haven’t done this), add 75 mg baking soda, 75 mg calcium chloride, and 75 mg epsom salt. (UPDATE: My current recipe is 100 mg baking soda, 75 mg calcium chloride, and 50 mg epsom salt.) This results in a water that is still refreshing, with enhanced thickness, taste and throatiness. Hopefully you can try this, let me know if it works for you, and maybe it will save you from the headaches I have had on the way to figuring this out. Water is very very complicated; there are whole books on water and there are even water sommeliers. With water, it’s much deeper than it seems on the surface.

 

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Making some water on the floor.